IN: Reviews

Chanticleer’s Awakenings Comes to NMF

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The tent on the Lawn of the Breakers Mansion, with its specially built sound stage designed to create as natural a sound environment as is possible in an outdoor acoustical setting, hosted Chanticleer’s latest touring program Awakenings. Named for the clear voice of the rooster in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Chanticleer delivered distinctively pure and clear sound in Renaissance songs paired with modern examples. This international palette “re-awakened” our spirits Saturday after the long and forced hiatus created by Covid.

African-American composer-poet Ayanna Wood penned close[r], now in 2021 on commission from the group, flipped an LA Times editorial calling for the closure of performing arts venues during Covid. It rather reflected on how we reconnected despite the restrictions that kept us apart, in her words to “hone the dexterity of love,” and in Chanticleer’s words to return to “more compassionate, more caring, and more creative [world] than the one we left in 2020.” Segueing immediately into Monteverdi’s “Lauda Jerusalem” from the Vespers, 1610, Chanticleer delivered this masterpiece with distinct clarity of the contrapuntal lines and highly punctuated rhythms. The madrigalesque painting of text stood in poignant contrast to the ever-present sacred chant of the tenor in this rendering Psalm 147, a song of thanks and praise.

William Carlos Williams poem The Rewaking, set to music by Augusta Read Thomas and describing the re-awakening of spring “so by your love the very sun itself is revived” paired with the alleluias of Alexander Agricola’s Regina coeli. In like manner, a set of two Hungarian compositions by Lajos Bárdos, flavored with folk-dance rhythms of Serbia and Hungary, arrived opposite Ulysses S. Kay’s “Music,” from the poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson comes from her Triumvirate. Bárdos’s text sung in Hungarian emphasized the end of winter, while Emerson’s poem revealed beauty being ever present, even “in the mud and scum of things.”

Then a rich and sonorous arrangement by Gene Puerling of Burton Lane’s “On a Clear Day” preceded director Tim Keeler’s arrangement of “Sunrise,” a song originally by the New York City based band MICHELLE. Keeler’s arrangement featured shakers and finger snaps and a warm tenor solo by Matthew Mazzola. This musical couplet then grafted itself onto Byrd’s vibrant and celebratory five voice motet Laudibus in sanctis; its rapidly changing meters and punctuated syncopations were delivered with verve and excitement augmented by crystal clear enunciation that showed the text itself as a rhythmic device, yet the contrapuntal lines and overall sound possessed a clarity and sense of style worthy of the finest proponents of “historically informed performance practice.”

Chanticleer’s enormous success and popularity comes from its infallible ear for connecting composers of early music such as Byrd and Agricola with the music of our own time. The programming reveals how forward thinking, modern, and innovative qualities of these ancients and places them in a musical aesthetic continuum, ever evolving into the new while cherishing and maintaining its connective identity with the past.

This would have made an eloquent enough close to a finely crafted show, but the best would be forthcoming. Perhaps in honor of its name, Chanticleer devoted the last set of three “to the birds,” and once again telescoped them in a two-plus-one structure. Parisian madrigalist Clément Jannequin’s infamous Le chant des oiseux (“The Song of the Birds”) with its earthy snippets of counterpoint which break down into a cacophony of bird sounds partnered with Steven Sametz’s recently commissioned Birds of Paradise. The Sametz featured not only the calls of the birds and a quote of text from the Jannequin madrigal, but also the transcendent wings of their flight, “silver wings, golden wings.” Christina Rossetti’s text comes from her poem “Paradise: In a Symbol.” The final offering, Richard Evans standard Journey to Recife, was set by former Chanticleer director Joseph Jennings. This evocative arrangement used the voices to create a bossa nova rhythm and bass section, complete with the jungle calls of exotic birds of Brazil, that took the audience on a journey where “you’ll feel the magic fill your soul,” and apt summary to a delightfully wondrous evening. 

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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